Modern Lit: The Sugar Queen, by Sarah Addison Allen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bald Slope, North Carolina, was just another backwater until Marco Cirrini founded a ski resort and a family that would become local royalty. Josey, his only child, is 27 now, but her widowed mother’s a master at using guilt and disparagement to keep her under her thumb. Josey is attracted to the local mail carrier, Adam, but her  private life consists solely of gorging on sweets and romance novels, which she keeps well hidden in her closet. Until the day she opens the door to discover that Della Lee Baker, on the run from an abusive boyfriend, is hiding out in there. And Josey’s life will never be the same, for, little by little, Della pushes her out of her shell. And her mamma isn’t happy.

The Sugar Queen is a captivating confection of a novel. Bald Slope is populated by engaging characters whose quirks are attributable less to eccentricity than to a sort of everyday magic. It’s a place where books choose their readers, promises  cannot be broken, and the color red carries its own special power. That doesn’t mean that Josey can come of age without experiencing the pain of relinquishing her illusions. But this novel at heart is joyful, brimming with humor, warmth, and southern charm even when something bitter must be faced.  I enjoyed reading Sarah Addison Allen’s first two novels, Garden Spells and The Peach Keeper, and The Sugar Queen is the best yet.  5 stars.

 

 

It’s a Mystery: Arson and Old Lace, by Patricia Harwin

my rating: 2 of 5 stars

Catherine Penny has fled New York City for an idyllic English village, struggling to come to terms with her failed marriage. She and her husband had visited Far Wychwood in happier times, and Catherine is dismayed as those bittersweet memories mar her pleasure in her new home. Still, living near her daughter’s family provides some compensation, and Catherine is determined to fit in with her neighbors and make a new life for herself. But she has a disconcerting way of stumbling into trouble. She begins by offering assistance to the elderly man across the lane, unperturbed when he rebuffs her, and alienates his arrogant son.  She agrees to babysit for her two year old grandson, only to find herself exhausted by his boundless energy. Though some of the local ladies accept her with kindness, it isn’t long before Catherine is known as a pushy busybody. Then the old man’s house burns down, and she strongly suspects arson.

Catherine is an interesting protagonist, and the question of arson is an intriguing one. But in truth, she IS a pushy busybody. At her age (60-ish), she should have learned to control her impulsiveness, but Catherine repeatedly throws herself into one iffy situation after another. Some are mildly comical, but the way that she ignores her daughter’s wishes about the care of the little boy is deplorable. It’s true that she comes to reveal one of the town’s dirty little secrets, but in the process, manages to muck up several lives in which she had no business meddling. Look out, Far Wychwood, you’ll never be the same.

I plan to read the second in this series, to discover whether Catherine develops a modicum of wisdom. For a more appealing lady sleuth, read the Dorothy Martin series by Jeanne M. Dams.

It’s a Mystery: Holy Terror in the Hebrides, by Jeanne M. Dams

my rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sixty- something widow Dorothy Martin is an American ex-pat living in England.  Offered the chance to vacation on the tiny Scottish island of Iona, she gladly accepts. But Dorothy has the bad luck to arrive with an American church tour, whose seven members don’t permit their religious convictions to prevent them from squabbling and backbiting. On a group excursion to Staffa, a geological wonder, Dorothy is horrified to observe Bob, the most despised member of the tour, slip on a wet rock and tumble into the churning sea. Shocked at first, she soon recalls that conditions were dry all over the island: could someone have set Bob up for the fall by pouring water on that rock? Perhaps her suspicious would have developed no further, but the next day, huddling uneasily together in the hotel during a fierce rain and wind storm, Dorothy has the perfect opportunity to study each member for motive,  and piece her scanty evidence together. What she concludes shakes her deeply.

Holy Terror in the Hebrides qualifies as a classic English village mystery, but its author is no Brit. Jeanne Dams hails from Indiana, and describes her protagonist as her alter ego. Dorothy is a strong central character, propelling the rather simple plot via her observations, thoughts, and reactions. The actions of all other characters are filtered and interpreted through her. The novel is devoid of violence, with the terror promised by its title occurs in passages late in the narrative, and the denouement  is curiously lacking in suspense.  But Iona is a fascinating setting, and the story’s shortcomings are balanced by personality and atmosphere.

 

Monday Morning Poem: March

By Celia Thaxter

 

THE keen north wind pipes loud;

Swift scuds the flying cloud; 
Light lies the new fallen snow;
The ice-clad eaves drip slow,
For glad Spring has begun,
And to the ardent sun
The earth, long times so bleak,
Turns a frost-bitten cheek.
Through the clear sky of March,
Blue to the topmost arch,
Swept by the New Year’s gales,
The crow, harsh-clamoring, sails.
By the swift river’s flood
The willow’s golden blood
Mounts to the highest spray,
More vivid day by day;
And fast the maples now
Crimson through every bough,
And from the alder’s crown
Swing the long catkins brown.
Gone is the winter’s pain;
Though sorrow still remain,
Though eyes with tears be wet,
The voice of our regret
We hush, to hear the sweet
Far fall of summer’s feet.
The Heavenly Father wise
Looks in the saddened eyes
Of our unworthiness,
Yet doth He cheer and bless.
Doubt and Despair are dead;
Hope dares to raise her head,
And whispers of delight
Fill the earth day and night.
The snowdrops by the door
Lift upward, sweet and pure,
Their delicate bells; and soon,
In the calm blaze of noon,
By lowly window-sills
Will laugh the daffodils!

Kid-Lit: Mary Poppins, by P. L. Travers

my rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having read Mary Poppins as a kid, and watched the movie version as a teen, I was recently inspired to read the classic again after seeing Saving Mr. Banks. For those who haven’t read this book, a caution before opening it: the literary Mary Poppins is nothing like her movie persona. Well, she does have the carpet bag and the famous umbrella with the parrot head (you can buy one of your own for a mere $40 from the Disney Stores), and she can do magical things. But, or perhaps I should say BUT, Mary Poppins is certainly not all sweetness and light. As for Bert, in the book he sells matches, makes chalk drawings, and appears only in one chapter. And nobody sings. Still charming after all these years,  P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers’ classic children’s novel, is an old-fashioned story that can be considered a sort of early Harry Potter story, in the English tradition. The Banks family is wealthy enough  that Mr. and Mrs. don’t have to do housework or pay much attention to their four young children, and it’s unclear what Mrs. does all day while her husband’s working at the bank, “making money”.   When their umpteenth nanny quits,  Mary Poppins blows in on the east wind, bringing with her a rather acerbic manner characterized by strictness, sarcasm, and never a hint of coddling. Though not pretty, she is vain and enjoys dressing well and admiring her reflection in shop windows. She settles right in, and proceeds to lead Michael and Jane on a series of amazing adventures, where people can sit up in the air, animals talk, and a trip around the world can be made in an hour or so. These adventures are meant to convey lessons about proper behavior and pro-social attitudes, but I think younger readers, unless particularly perspicacious, might need to have this pointed out to them. They might also miss some of the amusing, but subtle and dry humor scattered about. Whimsical and somewhat sophisticated for its place and time. Just as the book Mary Poppins is not the movie Mary Poppins, neither was the writer P. L. Travers the movie P. L. Travers. But that’s a different story indeed.

Historical Fiction: The Spymistress, by Jennifer Chiaverini

my rating: 4 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Van Lew was born to a prominent family in Richmond, Virginia. Unusual for the time and place, they manumitted their slaves a decade before the Civil War, and regarded all African-Americans as equals. The Van Lews, though devoted to their state, are appalled and dismayed when it secedes, and they decide not to support the Confederacy in any way. It isn’t long before their neighbors notice, especially when Lizzie, by this time a spinster, demands permission to nurse Union POWs held in Richmond’s Libby Prison, a converted factory. From that point forward, the Van Lews are ostracized by all but the few like minded families that remain in the city. Lizzie comes to realize that, as her patients come to trust her, she’s ideally positioned to act as a spy for the Union. The Spymistress dramatizes her story, one that deserves wider recognition than it currently holds.

Although at times the novel dips into the melodramatic,  it does a creditable job of demonstrating the  sacrifices made by Lizzie and her fellow Unionists, black or white. To say that they  risked their lives to undermine the Confederate cause is an understatement; it’s believed that one of the former Van Lew slaves, Mary Bowser, collaborated with Lizzie by hiring herself out as a maid in Jefferson Davis’s executive mansion. While reading about their espionage activities is intriguing, the last section of the book, following the surrender of Richmond, is eye-opening.  Ulysses S. Grant told Lizzie that she provided the most valuable information to come out of Richmond during the War Between the States, and The Spymistress illuminates the courage and heroism of Lizzie Van Lew and her compatriots. Well worth reading.

History is Mystery: The Lincoln Letter, by William Martin

imageMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Lincoln Letter is the tenth and latest  William Martin’s series of historical novels, several of which feature antiquarian book dealer  Peter Fallon. Now Fallon is back and hot on the trail of a heretofore unknown letter written by Abraham Lincoln on the last day of his life.  The letter is brief, addressed to  former War Department decoder Hawley Hutchinson , and seems to refer to a diary that Lincoln lost earlier in the Civil War. Fallon heads to Washington DC, only to discover that he  is not the only hunter in this increasingly dangerous quest. While Fallon is feverishly searching and defending his life, a series of flashbacks, narrated from the point of view of Hutchinson, illustrate how and why this mystery came to pass.  The plot is enriched by the actions of colorful characters in both time periods, and I found the Civil War story the more compelling. Martin adroitly handles the moral issues  of slavery and political machination without becoming preachy, and the African American characters are among the best developed.  Why were people so determined to find Lincoln’s diary in the 1860′s? For its value to anti-Lincoln factions for use as a weapon. Why are they so determined in the early 2000′s? For the diary’s value, to history, yes, but more importantly, for the fortune it would bring.

A fast paced, engrossing tale, thoughtful and well presented.